Big Tent Activism: On Why I Painted Kevin Zeese

Robert Shetterly

The artist’s essay that follows accompanies the ‘online unveiling’–exclusive to Common Dreams–of Shetterly’s latest painting in his “Americans Who Tell the Truth” portrait series, presenting those who have courageously engaged in the social, environmental, or economic issues of their time. This painting of political activist Kevin Zeese is his latest portrait of those who have dedicated their life to organizing and agitating in the name of the common good. Posters of this portrait and others are now available at the artist’s website.

To explain why I painted Kevin Zeese as part of the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait project  I want to tell two stories that would seem to have nothing to do with Kevin.

The first involves hearing Rev, Joseph Lowery, the great civil rights activist, speak at Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas in April of 2006 — seven years before I had even heard of Kevin. Camp Casey was established in 2005 to support Cindy Sheehan’s heroic struggle, as she camped in a ditch outside President George W. Bush’s Crawford ranch, demanding that the president come out and explain to her what “noble cause” her son Casey had died for in Iraq. People came from all over the US to support Cindy. The President refused to appear. It’s a sad day when a leader responsible for war cannot tell a grieving parent why her sacrifice was necessary.

The encampment grew and grew, becoming a nexus of anti-war activity, networking, community building, and activist education. A stage had been built at one end of a huge circus tent for speakers & musicians. Over the few days I was there, I heard Cindy speak, as well as Diane Wilson, Ann Wright, Robert Jensen, Eliza Gilkyson, and Rev. Lowery.

When Lowery rose to speak the large crowd gave him a standing ovation  before he even began. The applause– out of appreciation for his making the effort to come there–went on and on. Finally he said, “Sit down, sit down, or I’ll take up a collection.” And then he said, “But, if this ain’t a church, I don’t know what is.” And he went on, “I’m 84 years old. I’m concerned about the soul of America. It’s never been as imperiled as it is today… And the same people who are the war mongers are the sexists, the racists, the homophobes, and the destroyers of the environment. There are forces in this country trying to re-define America in their elitist image… They are theocrats, but their god is the god of wealth and consumption!”

Rev. Lowery called on all of us to understand that we had to unite all our individual causes because we had a common enemy and the only way to have enough political strength to defeat the enemy was together.

The reason I tell this story is because the political left is still divided, still fragmented with each fragment rallied around its single banner and, as a result, failing to build significant constituencies. Kevin Zeese, though, is an activist who personifies that necessary collaborative spirit. Not only does he rail against factionalization, but he joins together diverse causes with his exuberant, eclectic energy. Ever since high school when he was engaged with the anti-Vietnam war effort, civil rights and women’s issues he has understood how important it is to join forces. Zeese says, “The reality is that the ‘rule of money’ rather than rule by the people ensures a government that puts profits before the necessities of the people and protection of the planet. By recognizing how our issues are connected we can build solidarity across issues, a critical step in building a mass movement that cannot be ignored.”

Some of you will be aware that it was Kevin Zeese, a co-founder of Occupy Washington, DC, who established the encampment in the past few weeks outside the FCC in protest of the privatization of the internet.

The other story begins much further back than Camp Casey. And it begins in fiction. In Boris Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago, about the Russian Revolution and the years of repression following it there is a character named Strelnikov. This man becomes an ideological monster, a terrible object lesson in the danger of forfeiting one’s humanity for the righteousness of a cause. Strelnikov believes the ends justify the means, and in his case this means killing everyone he can who is not ideologically pure. His brutality proves what Martin Luther King, Jr., said about the ends being inherent in the means. Strelnikov’s politically fundamentalist anger finally leads to his own self destruction. One would have liked to remind Strelnikov of Emma Goldman’s famous statement, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” The insistence of political purity at the expense of joy leaves us all embittered and meaningless. I tell this story in the context of Kevin Zeese because of his love of life, his commitment to pursuing justice as a means to happiness, and his insistence that the pursuit must also be joyful. The means are the ends.

<p”>Another activist aspect of Kevin Zeese that I find so appealing is his taking the long view, a view not populated by a continuum of single leaders with big egos but by a multiplicity of community minded people encouraging each other’s joint leadership. He says, “…what we’re working on will not be resolved in my lifetime. Part of my job is to help others become their own powerful force that will continue the work after we’re gone…Economic democracy and system-wide political change are multi-decade challenges. We are working for major transformations, and that takes time.”

I scratched this quote into Kevin’s portrait: “To achieve economic, environmental and social justice requires a mass movement that follows a two prong strategy of resistance and creation. It is not sufficient to protest the destructive rule of money; we must also create alternative systems that put people and the planet before profits and show we can replace the existing failed system.”